Varieties of lox, smoked sturgeon, whitefish and sable, among others, are all important cultural delicacies which date back generations to European countries, specifically Russia. Immigrants brought with them their methods of smoking food and made a huge culinary impact that can still be tasted today in many trendy brunch spots around town or posh hotels in Beverly Hills. "There's a ton of history with smoked fish, especially with the czars and the royal factor of it," says Micah Wexler of Wexler's Deli.
However, when you sit down at a restaurant and order some lox, you don't always know where it's coming from. Most of the time it's not even sliced correctly. Supermarkets carry pre-packaged smoked fish containing preservatives and high levels of salt. If you really want to know what you're getting in terms of smoked fish, you need to head to a specialty market or appetizing store, the term made famous by Russ & Daughters, New York's Lower East Side smoked fish institution.
With the recent phasing out of the famous Barney Greengrass name at Barney's in Beverly Hills and the new festival circuit documentary, The Sturgeon Queens, about Russ & Daughters, we thought it was the perfect opportunity to find great places in L.A. for smoked fish.
10. Santa Monica Seafood
In 1939, Santa Monica Seafood started selling fish wholesale on the pier. Eventually, the family-owned company became one of the largest seafood distributors in Southern California. In 1969, they opened their headquarters at 12th and Colorado, which would also become their first retail store. That store moved to its current location at 10th and Wilshire in 2009 simply because they outgrew their old spot. The new location, with its beautiful indoor seafood market, added a sit-down café, which, according to manager Sean Jacoby, is a huge hit.
Santa Monica Seafood doesn't have a big selection of smoked fish, since they really specialize in seafood as a whole. You're not going to find the same variety as in a Jewish deli or Russian market, but what you will find is unique and delicious. You can get Scottish smoked salmon, Nova and whitefish here, but if you want to try something different, go for the smoked albacore or the Indian candy - small pieces of King Salmon made with sugar, water, salt, spices and an applewood smoke. Absolutely delicious. 1000 Wilshire Blvd. Santa Monica; (310) 393-5244.
9. Rasputin Market
Rasputin Market has been in business since 2004, and it's earned a reputation of being one of the best specialty Russian stores in town. They prepare all sorts of great-looking food that you can grab if you're in a hurry. Although it doesn't have quite the selection of smoked fish as Odessa, there are some products at Rasputin you don't see everywhere - like the smoked eel.
Just ask the staff behind the counter to take out any smoked items you're interested in seeing up close. Rasputin has a different approach to slicing their "lakx": Instead of slicing diagonally to produce very thin portions, as is most common, they divide it into ¼-inch slices, almost like a loaf of bread. Rasputin has plenty of smoked fish variety packs, like smoked salmon with sturgeon or Capitan. What appetizer store would be complete without caviar? Rasputin has you covered there too. 17159 Ventura Blvd. Encino; (818) 905-9267.
8. Roll N Rye
Roll N Rye in Culver City almost never gets mentioned in the same sentence as other Jewish delis in town like Canter's, Nate 'n Al's, or Langer's. We're not sure why. It's been operating since 1963 and the proprietor, Rita Zide, comes from a family of deli owners with a long history in L.A. Zide attributes it to the fact that she doesn't really go out and publicize or network as much as she used to. Roll N Rye might not have the same exposure as the other places, but that doesn't faze Zide. She's very pleased with the customer base she has.
While Zide gets many young families eating at her shop, she said you really have to be over 40 to know Roll N Rye. When it comes to smoked fish, this might be one of the few places in town to get your hand-sliced, salty belly lox, which is shipped from Acme in Brooklyn. Roll N Rye also has you covered with whitefish and smoked cod. If you prefer less salty Nova, you'll find it here too. There's a great retro coffee shop vibe at Roll N Rye. Sit at the counter to eat, then take some lox to go. 10990 Jefferson Blvd. Culver City; (310) 390-3497.
7. Fairfax Fishery
Taking a stroll down Fairfax Avenue between Melrose and Beverly feels almost like a religious experience. After all, this is L.A.'s Williamsburg, well known and cherished for its Orthodox Jewish community. If you're looking to sit down to enjoy a bagel and lox in this neighborhood, no question, Canter's is your spot. If you're in need of something a little more specialized, then head to Fairfax Fishery on the next block.
What started as a place to get whole fresh fish has expanded in recent years to include some smoky goodness. The owners heard from the community there weren't many places in the neighborhood with a variety of smoked fish, and most of what you found was very high in sodium. Currently, they're one of the few joints in town smoking their own fish. Along with their homemade lox and smoked trout filet, they also sell smoked fish spreads like salmon mouse, tuna pâté, trout spread, and classic whitefish salad.
The Fishery recently started a new concept: Once a week, for about 2-3 hours, they have a smoked fish open house when you can get a fresh piece of fish, right out of the smoker, served as a sandwich. (Call ahead to see when they're doing this, as the time varies.) Fairfax Fishery's manager, Rami Tamir, thinks there's nothing better. "I don't understand why people wait in a long line for hotdogs at Pink's," says Tamir, "when they can come here and get a delicious piece of hot smoked fish." Try the smoked salmon jerky if you're in the mood for something even more unique. 345 N. Fairfax Ave, Los Angeles; (323) 653-6333.
6. Royal Gourmet Deli
The first time we called the Royal Gourmet Deli, the owner abruptly hung up the phone. After something like this, most people would just write an anonymous Yelp review and call it a day. But the Royal Gourmet Deli has been operating for 41 years, making it impossible to simply overlook this place. In this case, persistence won out because there was smoky gold to be found in West Hollywood.
Oleg Atroshenko, the owner of the Royal Gourmet Deli, greeted me with, "What do you want?" But after discussing the varieties of smoked fish, a few of which are specific to Russia, and other fishy things like the astronomical price of caviar, we were eventually laughing together, and he was happy to have a few photos taken. Among a huge variety of wine, Russian candies and everything your babushka used to make, you'll find a great selection of smoked delights as soon as you walk in.
Atroshenko gets his smoked fish products from NYC and a couple of places here in town which specialize in Russian smoked fish items. Whole smoked steelhead trout or smoked mackerel are not necessarily staples of the Jewish delicatessen, but you'll find them aplenty here. So when you head over to the Royal Gourmet Deli for your smoked fish, remember to take everything with a grain of salt. The attitude isn't anything personal. 8151 Santa Monica Blvd. West Hollywood; (323) 650-5001.
5. Factor's Famous Deli
When looking for smoked fish in West L.A., there's probably no better place than Factor's. The deli was established on Pico Blvd. in 1948, the same year as the founding of the state of Israel. The Markowitz family bought the delicatessen in 1969, and they've been running it ever since. Factor's does a lot of smoked fish business. Co-owner Suzee Markowitz says that at Yom Kippur, Factor's makes so many fish trays that in order to hold them all, they're forced to use one of their refrigerated trucks.
Factor's smoked fish is coming from either Brooklyn or Florida and, of course, they're hand-slicing their Nova. If you come in at the right time, you might even glimpse one of the counter guys slicing the fish up front by the deli cases. If you're an East Coast transplant looking for sable, then head over to Factor's. They also keep fresh, smoky sturgeon in stock, which you're not going to find at many delis or markets in town. 9420 W. Pico Blvd. Los Angeles; (310) 278-9175.
4. Odessa Grocery & Deli
The original Odessa Grocery & Deli in West Hollywood has been dishing out Russian and other European delicacies for 20 years. About three years ago, owner Alex Iskhakov opened a second Odessa market in the Valley to satisfy the needs of Valley Village's large Russian community. Belyana Weizman, Alex's daughter, hears from customers that Odessa has the best selection of smoked fish in town, and she may be right.
Odessa has lox of course, but they also have a large variety of other items like mackerel and sturgeon, both hot and cold smoked, smoked sardines, steelhead and hot smoked trout. You'll also find a Russian smoked product here called Capitan, which is made from a deep-water fish called escolar. The selection at Odessa is great and the friendly staff is knowledgeable about what they're selling. 12129 Magnolia Blvd. Valley Village; (818) 762-0331. 7781 Santa Monica Blvd. West Hollywood; (323) 848-9999.
Petrossian has a well-known and respected history of smoking fish, which dates back to the 1920s, after the Russian Revolution. Much of Russia's nobility fled to Paris and the Petrossian Brothers were there to give the czars a taste of home. Since then, Petrossian, still a family-owned and -operated company, has expanded internationally with restaurants, cafés and boutique markets in Dubai, Brussels, São Paulo, New York, Las Vegas and two locations in L.A. - West Hollywood and LAX's Tom Bradley International Terminal.
Petrossian serves only the highest quality smoked fish available, most of it coming from Paris. The West Hollywood location is definitely a luxury boutique and café and the furthest thing away from the Fairfax Fishery in terms of overall atmosphere and presentation. However, even with the fine caviar dishes on the wall and the white glove treatment you'll receive, it still has a neighborhood vibe. While you'll find certain smoked fish staples at Petrossian, you're also likely to find some smoked fish products you won't find anywhere else in town.
The smoked légine and the smoked salmon carpaccio are a couple of specialties. General manager Christopher Klapp acknowledges that the products you'll find at Petrossian are a luxury, but it's important to the company to make the experience a (relatively) affordable luxury. "Once in awhile it's nice to treat yourself," says Klapp. "You don't need to spend $130 on smoked salmon loin on a daily basis or a weekly basis, but it's nice to make the effort every once in awhile and really treat your guests to something special that [they will] remember." 321 N. Robertson Blvd. West Hollywood; (310) 271-6300. Also in the Tom Bradley International Terminal.
2. Brent's Delicatessen
The knives are sharpened and the slicing begins in a refrigerated room in the back of the store. Just to give you an idea of the difficulty of slicing lox, only three of Brent's staff of over 100 know how to do it. Antonio Granado, one of Brent's chosen three, can cut a full side of lox in about eight minutes, which is amazing considering the precision it requires. The reason so few people in a staff this large know how to slice lox is because it's a delicate skill, and the product is expensive, explains Food and Beverage Director Oscar Cobian.
In a normal week, Brent's will go through about 80 sides of Nova, which is less salty than belly lox. During the week of Mother's Day, they cut 160 sides. The week of Yom Kippur, Antonio and his two partners will slice 260 sides of smoked salmon. This is the real deal - hand-slicing - and Brent's has been doing it right since opening in 1967. The delicatessen is also making its own barbecued cod, which is similar to sable, except that it's brined instead of smoked. 19565 Parthenia St. Northridge; (818) 886-5679. 2799 Townsgate Road Westlake Village; (805) 557-1882.
1. Wexler's Deli
"All of the flavors in this place are all based on that food memory stuff," said chef and co-owner of Wexler's Deli, Micah Wexler. Wexler's is the new kid on the block in the Jewish deli arena. A concept developed by Wexler along with co-owners, Mike Kassar and David Sanfield, Wexler's Deli is a 10-seat counter establishment, which opened just a few weeks ago in downtown L.A.'s popular Grand Central Market.
Wexler said, "Our whole thing was to take it back to its roots and learn those craftsmanship ways and perfect them." Wexler's is the only Jewish deli in town making its own lox. They're using farm-raised salmon from Scotland, and the final product has a buttery texture that is not very salty. Through his years in the business and his familiarity with places like Russ & Daughters in NYC, Wexler taught himself how to smoke fish and slice it. While slicing some lox, thin enough to read The New York Times through, Wexler said, "Flavors come out really strong. If you put a very little bit of lemon zest in there, you'll taste the lemon in the salmon. All those flavors really come through so you have to be careful."
The counter deli at Grand Central Market is a small place, so at the moment it doesn't have the capacity to make huge quantities of lox or smoked sturgeon. Right now you can get these great smoky products on a bagel with cream cheese, some capers, and thinly sliced onions, but at some point Wexler hopes to sell poundage to go and offer other smoked fish varieties. Grand Central Market, 317 S. Broadway Los Angeles; (213) 624-2378.
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And remember to check out The Sturgeon Queens at the Skirball Cultural Center on June 29 at 2 p.m.